An essay by Peg Mcguire
… the concept of conservation faces enormous, apparently almost hopeless odds. Already much of the biological and environmental damage is nearly irreversible … the outspoken conservationist is seen as a Cassandra prophesying woe – he may be right but he will not be popular.
The present sees us bedevilled and bewildered by frightening new realities on home soil, the inescapable effects of climate change that wrought wildfires across tropical rainforests and temperate coastal beaches alike followed on its heels by the invisible pandemic entailing unemployment and social isolation. It is surely now inconceivable that AGL continue to bribe and bully its way to restart the rampant destruction of marine, island and mainland habitat on a monumental scale? If AGL succeeds, its mega-plant will obliterate all prospects but itself from the foreshore. With banksias still blackened by an arsonistʼs fire four years ago, the prospect of fire onboard the robotic liquification plant is catastrophic; ignition would begin a fireball a kilometre across.
Woolleyʼs Beach is at the heart of Westernport and remains central to the struggle for the preservation of its huge coastal nursery and bears the wounds of 20th century industrialisation. Take the now alienated, heavily polluted elevated ground in Disney St fronting the Esplanade with its flat, far-reaching views. In 1963 Victorian Premier Henry Bolt colluded with British Petroleum to create an oil refinery here built to last for generations aided by excessive subsidies for infrastructure. Abruptly closed down some twenty years later and abandoned, now known locally as the ‘tank farmʼ, pampas grass prospers, a vestige of the original, sweeping landscaping.  Only the award winning 1965 Administration Building below was preserved and is now serving as a militaristic maritime museum.
In 2020, Crib Point is at the heart of AGLʼs grandiose, global plans just as it was for the industrialists last century. Overlooking the long jetty built to span the shallows and reach the channel, once so largely gifted to BP, AGL eyes the bay hungrily; their impatience grows. Ordered to halt all works while an ecological survey is made, AGL has nevertheless made preparatory moves. Their access via Woolleyʼs Rd has been considerably upgraded since, presumably paid for, not by AGL, but by the responsible authority, Vic Roads. Then just a month ago, alerted by Save Westernport members, the local paper spread a front page photo of a bulldozer having gutted out the foreshore vegetation; the caption read:
The Save Westernport group has described as “appalling” the clearing of several hectares of native bushland at the proposed site of the AGL floating storage and regasification unit at Crib Point jetty. Contractors hired by the Port of Hastings Development Authority used a bulldozer and backhoe for the works. [Westernport News 10.03.20]
The collusion apparent between the private company and our public entity is a recurrent, grave concern.
A previous incarnation of a Save Westernport movement began in 1970 to protest the usurpation and despoliation of the western foreshore between Tyabb and Stony Point by energy-hungry industries. We felt it was high time to reveal how the plan to destroy Western Port began, who will profit from it and how Australia will lose if it isnʼt stopped.
Henry Bolte had headed the Liberal Government since 1955 and as its treasurer had determined a policy of ‘Selling Victoriaʼ overseas, discretely courting industrial investors while currying public favour at home by mocking and vilifying trade unions, intellectuals, protesters and the press. By the mid 60s, the rich oil deposits deep under the turbulent waters of Bass St could be safely accessed with the new technology in machinery. Bolte boasted that he would birth the biggest container port in the country and that Westernport would be Victoriaʼs Ruhr. His vision was pinned on the illusion that Westernport was naturally serviced by a deep water channel when, subject to shifting shallows of mud and sand banks, it requires dredging. Planning was in the hands of the Westernport Regional Planning Committee, including accomodating local councillors untroubled by pollution, dirt and noise and more immediately preoccupied with profiting from rising real estate prices. Bolte, at the zenith of his remarkable political career, pushed through two more projects, the Esso plant on Long Island 1967 and Lysaght steel in Hastings 1970.
For the first three years of the 1970s a civil campaign was fought to highlight these egregious planning decisions and to defy the further industrialisation of Westernport, climaxing in a public rally at the Melbourne Town Hall in March 1972. Central to this hard fought campaign was a drive for signatures on a petition protesting further incursions of industry to be delivered to the Federal Parliament after the March rally.
Poet, conservationist and activist, Judith Wright, identified as the inaugural President of the Wildlife Protection Society of Queensland, was invited to be the key speaker. A squatterʼs granddaughter of the New England Tableland, she had begun question her colonial inheritance in 1962 with a growing awareness of the destruction her immediate forbears inflicted. In lectures and essays Wright explored the new science of conservation – not the museum concept of preserving species but the preservation of whole ‘ecosystemsʼ. She studied the new terms, ecology and biosphere and pinned a moment of human change in our attitude to the planet back to the astronautʼs view of it in 1969 as small, frail and beautiful. Wright, widowed with a young adult daughter, was finding a bigger, engaged audience among the idealistic young who could afford their altruism, eager to be friends and defenders of Spaceship Earth. She highlighted the potential for a humanist dimension in new science:
The newly emerged concept we have called conservation, and its allied science of ecology … are concerned with life. They hold the possibility, at least of an imaginative participation in a life-process which includes us, and to which we contribute our own conscious knowledge of it, as part of it, not separate from it.
Aware that her ideas left her open to the mockery of contemporary philosophers who derided terms like value and meaning, Wright acknowledged the role of the emotions in our apprehension of art and nature, challenging the touted objectivity of science. Art and science are two creativities free to work together rather than serving as opposing forces. If we fail to win this reconciliation, the machinery we invent to serve our needs will instead rule us: …
we also have a responsibility for seeing that [our planet] does not become so poor and ugly, so polluted by our waste-products, so monotonous and unvaried by other existences than those of human beings, so generally unpleasant to live in, that we all develop mental illnesses and die of mutual hatred, boredom and distaste.
Judith Wrightʼs support mattered because of her national reputation; she was knowledgeable about environmental issues across the country from the march of the desert in arid interiors to the erosion of coastal wetlands. Living on Mt Tamborine within a walk of the views from the edge of the rainforest with its distant prospect of the high rise on the Gold Coast at waterʼs edge growing ever closer; she was intimately involved in protecting the rich wetlands along the Coral Sea, and prominent in the protests against mining the coloured sands at Cooloola and the oil and limestone miners coveting the Great Barrier Reef. Moreover she understood the power and persuasions of their autocratic Premiers. The ingenue Jo Bjelke Petersen had swept the National Party to power in 1968, seeking the Victorianʼ Liberalʼs support and modelling himself on Bolteʼs public persona, posing as a simple farmer while scheming with the rich and powerful. Money is power Wright noted and power in a hurry.
Wright would have been sent sent a copy of an ambitious booklet published by the Save Westernport Coalition in the winter of 1971 and consisting of 24 pages of text and image. It is a remarkably concise publication condensing large complicated ideas into coherent, persuasive arguments and selling for just 30cents. Here she learnt that wild Westernport Bay was in danger by plans to improve access to onshore industry by infilling the muddy shallows – demonstrated in their opening pages with Keith Tarrantʼs bespoke aerial photograph of Lysaghts building a kind of causeway reaching out into the bay. (At just 10% of the infill planned, these works destroyed some 70% of the seagrass; abalone divers working off French Island recalled diving into waving neck-high stands of seagrass). The fill came from dredging including some from slopes bulldozed on their property and granite from Arthurs Seat.
This rare booklet could only have come from the collaboration of an informed collective else the specificity of each page and each issue would not have crystallised. The eight members of the editorial committee were careful at all points to be precise and accurate. Mild looking now, it was as innovative as it was unequivocal. Printed on one of the new offset lithography presses which allowed new freedoms in lay-out, it begins dramatically with an almost square cover printed black with the title highlighted in white: ʼTHE SHAME OF WESTERNPORT Speculatorʼs Dream … Environmental Nightmareʼ.
Sixteen organisations worked together under the title, the Save Western Port Coalition, to publicise the beleaguered Bay so close to the capital yet remaining unknown and content in its bucolic obscurity. They argued that the capital and beyond needed to be informed as the locals live to live with the consequences. Melbourne was changing, Hare Krishnas added music and colour on the streets, women were claiming rights equal to menʼs; soon a generation of ordinary young Australians would be suddenly free to get a higher education. Monash University was rising from the paddocks of Bundoora and, like the nearby new art school in Preston, determined to make change. The Coalition aimed to bring together artists, scientists, students and other citizens concerned to protect the future. Flanking a column of text headed The City of No Escape is a futuristic photomontage showing a flattened landscape lost under factories and a confusion of freeways:
A decision to industrialise Western Port would turn Melbourne into an unending metropolis from Wonthaggi to Geelong.
There were particulars of the pollution traps combining a variety of effluents, quoting a crowd of Australian scientists from their statement to the press in May 1971:
This faith [in technology] is unfounded … The web of life which nurtured man for a million years and on which man depends for his survival is falling to pieces.
The peculiar shape of the bay was in itself a pollution haven Wright read. The editors included the findings of a Master of Business Administration survey showing the cost of treating effluent prohibitive because it never left the shallow bay but was washed back shorewards by every returning tide. Altona was cited as the better option.
John Iggulden is listed at the head of the editorial committee. Born and raised in Brighton he had been a champion glider, the inaugural president of the Port Phillip Conservation Society and a talented writer. The editors concur with the emphasis Wright put on intuition, declaring themselves unashamed
to lay the case for all sorts of emotional things like penguins and seals and clean beaches. We need these more than oil refineries.
The broad format of ʼThe Shameʼ was chosen to advantage the impact of their arguments by incorporating a range of media as a parallel persuasion. It was designed to capture the largest amount of attention, printed in large numbers and available for 30 cents, the price of a good coffee perhaps. A page of newspaper banners, cuttings cobbled together, faces text on the other outlining the Secret Plans of the notorious Westernport Regional Planning Authority before giving way over-page to the contrasting pristine nature photos of Elizabeth Wilkins, one of three women listed as editors (and the only one not married within the Coalition.) This suite of Wilkinsʼ photos highlighted the wildlife on French Island all 84 acres of which the planners roundly declared worthless land, a fine place, they were told for a nuclear reactor.
As the date for the Melbourne rally grew closer, the outspoken journalist, Rohan Rivett whose most likely informant from the Coalition was John Iggulden, brought both sides of the argument under sustained scrutiny. Grandson of Alfred Deakin and son of the first head of the emerging CSIRO, Rivett remained unafraid of controversy, unpopularity and the cost of libel suits. He was writing on politics in Melbourne for ʼThe Canberra Timesʼ [02.02.1972] as Rupert Murdoch refused to employ him in Flinders St. Given generous space on p 2 his title read ʼNew Look at Forgotten Landʼ with a small map inserted below showing the contested western coastline between Tyabb and Flinders in relation to Melbourne.
Rivett acknowledged that the amount of attention conservationists were gaining had been unimaginable even six years earlier. 15,000 had signed Save Westernportʼs petition and more were expected to before the final collection at the rally. (Signatories included ACTU President Bob Hawke, artist John Perceval and architect Robin Boyd.) Nevertheless Rivett was confident so long as Bolted was Premier, he would rule supreme, concluding:
It may be too late for the sluggish forces of the conservationists to arrest Sir Henryʼs biggest scheme but there is every prospect of some ‘braw an bluidyʼ fighting before the critics succumb.
Wright was courted in a manner that mattered to her, given the chance to see for herself the territory that needed defending. Arriving in Melbourne she was met by Coalition members who took her on a day tour along the shores of Westernport. At least one journalist accompanied them. At Woolleyʼs beach she studied the shallow crib-like shape of the deceptively small-looking bay foreshortened by a profile of the Dandenongs to the east, by the bulk of French Island extending a long finger of land low enough to show the rising hills of South Gippsland beyond and pointing to Phillip Island and rounded off by Stony Point, shielding the long view to Flinders. Behind her she saw the last of the wildflowers blooming on unploughed land. The Age reporter quoted her otherwise private advice to the Coalition:
Because you have put up a big resistance, a few concessions will be made to you. There will be a hurried ecological survey of some kind there will be promises about effluent disposal you will be told it is possible to have the best of both worlds … But of course it wonʼt work. You are to be the Ruhr of Australia.
At the Rally that evening the poet and mistress of rhetoric did not hold back. To the audience of 2000 she began:
Nobody ever refers to your opposition as a coalition to wreck Westernport … itʼs a coalition to wreck the planet … It is made up of the forces of progress (a holy word I believe, I breathe it carefully), of industry, and technology, and money. And it owns the world, financially at least. It has a motto ‘Progress and Profit before Peopleʼ and it pays for nothing extra – like planning for the environment – unless itʼs forced to pay. To all intents and purposes, this force does own the world but we live in the world, and some of us are willing to fight for it.
It was at this rally that Wright welcomed the word ‘Greeniesʼ coined by government bureaucrats as an insult to protesting conservationists. The rally concluded festively with Glen Tomasetti singing her latest, ‘Here Come the Greeniesʼ. [The Age 2.2.72]
The shift the Coalition made from a local to a national audience would bring their quixotic campaign to a satisfactory conclusion aided by Boltʼs unexpected resignation from politics late in 1972. He foresaw his power evaporating in the changing society he had dominated for so long; he had watched as Liberal plans to open up the Little Desert for settlement were overturned in the courts giving victory to the environmentalists. Unlike his northern protege, dreaming of becoming Prime Minister but heading for k. l. m. corruption charges, Bolte saw the writing on the wall, resigning just months before Whitlam headed the Labor Party to victory.
Where the first generation of modern conservationists needed to outface the corruption of the Westernport Regional Planning Authority and the might of international capital, we face the obscurantism and evasions of the Port of Hastings Development Authority – last reconstituted and renamed in 2012. Today their website opens at a page with an image of industry at waterʼs edge brandishing big words: Naturally Deep & Positioned for Growth, surely another nod to AGL. We are back at the lie that Westernport is accessible to large craft through a naturally deep channel running between the islands and the mainland, the Speculatorʼs Dreaming of the 1960s. The deep water ceases at Sandy Point. 
- In the legend Cassandraʼs predictions prove correct but it is her fate never to be believed. My citations from Judith Wrightʼs essays on conservation in ʼBecause I Was Invitedʼ 1975 Oxford University Press.
- The Victorian Government came up with a novel strategy for housing the new workforce of refinery workers nearby. They could select a site to build their house on a 99 year lease, owning the house but not the land which was then and is reserved by the Port Authority for container storage. I watched the last owner-built dwelling removed from the Esplanade just last year. This discrete arrangement explains the abundance of redundant driveways on weed-infested ground in lower Disney St, and along Bay St (the only housing remaining in view of the foreshore are some few brick dwellings built for officers from Cerberus.) The obscurity shrouding who owns what where and for what purpose grows.
- The first on the list was a 1970 colour film ‘Turn of the Tideʼ which had its origins in the Department of Engineering at m. n. Monash when twelve engineering students were allowed to leave the laboratory for fieldwork to study the effects the three new industries were having on the ecology of Westernport. A copy was deposited at the State Film Centre and incorporated into ACMI. It is yet to be seen as the Centre is closed at present.
- The Preserve Western Port Action Group ‘A Discussion Paperʼ presented to the Victorian Parliament 2014 prompted by plans for a container port in Hastings. [parliament.vic.gov.au]